Saturday, November 30, 2013

An Important Movie

"Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world."


In reality, there probably was no one who would have seemed less likely to be a hero before World War II than Oskar Schindler.

He was a German businessman and Nazi Party member, greedy, arrogant, a womanizer who lived an opulent life in Poland away from his wife in Germany. At first, he hired Jews to work in his factory because, with their wages set by the Nazis, they cost him less than Poles. That evolved, with the assistance of his accountant (Ben Kingsley), into Schindler's unrestricted use of his factory to protect an estimated 1,100 Jews from deportation and probable death.

It took nearly half a century for Schindler's story to be brought to the big screen. Appropriately, it was Steven Spielberg, perhaps the most popular filmmaker of his time, who told the story to a mostly ignorant world. Many people will tell you it is the greatest movie ever made. The American Film Institute didn't go quite that far. I'm not sure if I would go that far, but I would certainly rank it in the Top 10. It ranked "Schindler's List" eighth on its Top 100 list.

Schindler (played by Liam Neeson in the movie) was AFI's 13th–greatest movie hero — and Amon Goeth (played by Ralph Fiennes) was AFI's 14th–most villainous villain (the highest–ranking nonfiction villain on that list).

And, in the 20 years since its initial theatrical release on this day in 1993, "Schindler's List" has been used countless times as a classroom learning tool.

When you look back at Spielberg's career, you can see certain patterns in his work, as you can with just about any great director, I suppose.

In "Schindler's List," you can see a technique to which Spielberg would return a few years later when he made "Saving Private Ryan" — the vivid re–creation of a harrowing wartime event. In "Ryan," it was the re–creation of D–Day. In "Schindler," it was the liquidation of the Kraków ghetto.

Both scenes were lengthy — and painful to watch but necessary for the viewer to get a taste of what the participants must have experienced. Spielberg himself remarked that he felt more like a reporter than a filmmaker when he made "Schindler's List," as if he had been witnessing the actual events, not re–creating them for a movie.

By the time "Ryan" hit the theaters, you could see how much Spielberg's technique had matured. It was still in its infancy when he made "Schindler's List," but, even so, it packed a punch.

I don't think it is an exaggeration to say "Schindler's List" may well be the most important movie made in my lifetime. I guess it has almost become a cliche for someone to say that a movie project in which he or she was involved was important, but it really does fit "Schindler's List."

The interaction between Schindler and his accountant was one of the things I found especially remarkable.

Under far less extreme circumstances, it was the kind of partnership that usually succeeds in the business world. Schindler was the big–picture guy; Itzhak Stern was the nuts–and–bolts guy, the details guy. Both brought skills to the enterprise that were essential to its success.

But, in the intense atmosphere of the Holocaust, success and failure were entirely different.

I already admired Ben Kingsley's work. A decade earlier, he starred in a movie that really was an important movie, "Gandhi."

Until "Schindler's List," though, I didn't have the same kind of admiration for Liam Neeson. He had been in several movies by this time — I even saw him in one or two — and I was favorably impressed, but I didn't think of him as an important actor until I saw "Schindler's List."

After I saw his scene late in the movie where he spoke of how many more lives he could have saved if he had sold his watch or his car, he became an important actor in my eyes.

I remember the first time I watched "Schindler's List" on TV. It was shown with no commercial interruptions — on NBC, I think, and sponsored by the Ford Motor Company. As I recall, Spielberg spoke at the start of the movie and at the end. In one of those segments, he said that he had been asked if he would permit his children to watch "Schindler's List." He said he wanted all of his children to watch it when they were ready.

That was the kind of thing, Spielberg admitted, that each parent had to decide because children mature at different rates, but he said that, as a general rule of thumb, he wouldn't let young children watch it. But a child in junior high or high school probably could understand the material and ask thoughtful questions after the movie was over. Young children might be traumatized.

I thought that was a reasonable — as well as responsible — thing for him to say.

Consequently, I was astonished the next day when a lawmaker from Oklahoma complained about the nudity in "Schindler's List," and accused Spielberg, NBC and Ford of acting irresponsibly. I wondered if the lawmaker even bothered to watch the telecast. If he had, I thought, he might have realized that the Nazis used nudity as a weapon against the Jews, not as a means of their own arousal. It was an example of the Nazis' cruelty.

Truly, some people can't see the forest for the trees.

There was another element of "Schindler's List" that is worth discussing. I speak of the little girl in the red coat. In real life, she must have stood out in the crowd just as she did in the movie — made almost entirely in black and white — if the little girl ever really existed.

My understanding is that the girl in the red coat was fictional, that she was symbolic of how high–ranking officials in democratic countries like the United States did nothing to prevent the Holocaust even though they were aware of it like "a little girl wearing a red coat, walking down the street."

In fact, though, there was a little girl in a red coat in the Kraków ghetto, and for a time it was thought that the girl in "Schindler's List" either was inspired by her or was a minor dramatization of her story. Her name was Roma Ligocka, and she was remembered by many who were there for that red coat she wore.

In the movie, the girl in the red coat apparently died. I say "apparently" because the camera does not show her actual death, but it does show her limp body, identifiable only by that coat. It was a powerful moment in the movie, and it marked the beginning of Schindler's personal transformation.

But Ligocka did not die in the Holocaust. She survived and lives today in Munich. She is Roman Polanski's cousin.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Secret Identity

Mrs. Doubtfire (Robin Williams): [reading a letter] "Dear Mrs. Doubtfire, two months ago, my mom and dad decided to separate. Now they live in different houses. My brother Andrew says that we aren't to be a family anymore. Is this true? Did I lose my family? Is there anything I can do to get my parents back together? Sincerely, Katie McCormick." Oh, my dear Katie. You know, some parents, when they're angry, they get along much better when they don't live together. They don't fight all the time, and they can become better people, and much better mummies and daddies for you. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don't, dear. And if they don't, don't blame yourself. Just because they don't love each other anymore doesn't mean that they don't love you. There are all sorts of different families, Katie. Some families have one mommy, some families have one daddy, or two families. And some children live with their uncle or aunt. Some live with their grandparents, and some children live with foster parents. And some live in separate homes, in separate neighborhoods, in different areas of the country — and they may not see each other for days, or weeks, months ... even years at a time. But if there's love, dear ... those are the ties that bind, and you'll have a family in your heart forever.

Robin Williams has been a wild man ever since I first became aware of him. He was almost certainly a wild man before that.

The first time I remember seeing him was in the role of Mork — originally as a guest on Happy Days, then in a recurring role on the Mork and Mindy TV show, a Happy Days spinoff. Maybe he did some things before that. I don't know.

But I've seen most of his movies since then, and there's always that kind of frenzy about him. Well, almost always.

The exception, perhaps, was "Mrs. Doubtfire," the movie that was released 20 years ago today. There was still a lot of that hyper dialogue in his performance — some of it must have been the result of a good director (Chris Columbus) simply letting Williams go on one of his improvisational rants. That was, after all, what the moviegoing public paid money to see.

But "Mrs. Doubtfire" was different. Mrs. Doubtfire was a strict but sweet and caring Scottish nanny. In every life there should be a Mrs. Doubtfire.

Thing is, Mrs. Doubtfire was already in the lives of Sally Field and her three children — because Mrs. Doubtfire was really Williams, Field's ex–husband. Williams' character was an affectionate father, but he was not much for discipline nor did he set a particularly good example for his children so he was limited in the time he could spend with them.
Daniel (Robin Willilams): Did you ever wish you could sometimes freeze frame a moment in your day, look at it and say, "This is not my life?"

The only way he could spend more time with them was to assume another identity so he could get the job of housekeeper — and he had to stay in character.

He couldn't be discovered or he would lose the job for sure — and possibly the time he was allowed with his children in his true identity.

That could be pretty challenging, especially when he was with his ex–wife and her new beau (Pierce Brosnan) not as Daniel the ex but as Mrs. Doubtfire.

Of course, there were several narrow escapes before his cover was finally blown, but that was a big part of the movie's charm. Anyway, by then, some really unexpected changes had occurred.

I felt the conclusion of the movie didn't compromise. Williams and Field did not get back together — in a happily–ever–after movie, they would, but not in "Mrs. Doubtfire." Field put a little of her pride on the shelf and allowed Williams to spend more time with his children. It was a good lesson, reinforced by Mrs. Doubtfire's closing monologue (with which I began this post) on love and family and distance, for children from divided families.

When I was growing up, I knew several children whose parents were divorced, and some spent their childhoods hoping their parents would get back together. None ever did. Sometimes they do, as Mrs. Doubtfire said, but quite often, they don't. "Mrs. Doubtfire" always kind of reminded me of "Tootsie."

The stories weren't the same, of course. The lead character in "Tootsie" was not motivated by the desire to spend more time with a family. He cross–dressed because he was an abrasive person who couldn't find work as an actor.

In the process, he learned things that made him a better person.

Something similar happened, I think, to Robin Williams' character in "Mrs. Doubtfire." He learned things that made him a better parent — and led to a different kind of love story.

Perhaps Satire of 'Beat the Devil' Eluded Audiences in '53

Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart): The only thing standing between you and a watery grave is your wits, and that's not my idea of adequate protection.

Satire isn't successful if the audience doesn't get it — and that, I have concluded, was the problem with "Beat the Devil."

I've heard that Humphrey Bogart loathed "Beat the Devil," which premiered on this day in 1953.

I'm not sure why that is so. Sadly, I can only conclude that it couldn't have been anything but the script — which, from the perspective of 60 years later, seems lively to me but may have been over the heads of moviegoers in 1953.

I've heard that Bogart hated it because he invested a lot of his own money in the project, and it didn't do too well at the box office. That's a more plausible reason than the others that come to mind, but it really only explains why Bogart didn't like it.

It couldn't be because of the director — John Huston. Bogart and Huston had worked together on at least three movies that are regarded as classics today. Clearly, Bogart didn't hate Huston, and neither did movie audiences.

It couldn't be the cast. Bogart worked with Peter Lorre on other projects. His history with Robert Morley wasn't as extensive so I don't know what kind of relationship they had, but they seemed to work well together in "The African Queen." And audiences seemed to like those stars.

He had no history at all — as far as I know — with Jennifer Jones or Gina Lollobrigida, but he seemed to have a pretty good personal chemistry with both of them. And moviegoers liked both of them, too.

Bogart successfully played parts in comedies, thrillers, film noir — all sorts of genres. Perhaps that was the problem with "Beat the Devil." It was many genres rolled into one. Film critic Roger Ebert observed that it was called "the first camp movie," and that is as good a description as any.

A "cult classic," Ebert had this to say about "Beat the Devil."
"John Huston's 'Beat the Devil' (1953) shows how much Hollywood has lost by devaluing its character actors. In an age when a $20 million star must be on the screen every second, this picture could not be made. Huston has stars, too: Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, but his movie is so funny because he throws them into the pot with a seedy gang of charlatans."

That seedy gang of characters included Lorre and Morley as half of a gang of four intent upon gaining access to uranium–rich deposits in Kenya. They find themselves stranded in Italy with Bogart and Lollobrigida while the steamer in which they are traveling is being repaired. They are joined by a British couple, played by Jones (in a blonde wig) and Edward Underdown.

Gwendolyn Chelm (Jennifer Jones): Harry, we must beware of these men. They are desperate characters.

Harry Chelm (Edward Underdown): What makes you say that?

Gwendolyn Chelm: Not one of them looked at my legs!

Actually, I don't really think of "Beat the Devil" as a Bogart movie. Sure, he was its primary star — and a recent Best Actor winner — but I think it was wrong for the people of that time to put so much stock in his role in it — if that is what they did — and what the critics of the time may have said about it.

It was really John Huston's film. He directed it, and he intended for it to be a parody of the film noir style that he pioneered. In that sense, it succeeded.

And Huston's fingerprints are all over it — his dry wit is evident from beginning to end. "Beat the Devil" is, basically, a comedy of errors. I can think of many similar movies but none that can be effectively compared to it. Huston's lively and socially aware script, which was co–written by Truman Capote, comments on a wide variety of subjects.

And, in the grand tradition of comedies of errors, "Beat the Devil" is a brilliant illustration of the old adage, "What a tangled web we weave ..."

This was the last time Bogart worked with Huston or Lorre.

(By the way, Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his Oscar–winning portrayal of Truman Capote, tells a story about the making of "Beat the Devil.")

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Harpo's 125th Birthday

In the realm of wordless comedy, no one may have been better at it than Harpo Marx, a clown/mime.

When I was a teenager, a group of young people from the Methodist church in my hometown went to Little Rock one night to see Marcel Marceau in a one–man show. My memory is that it was a bitterly cold night, and Marceau was good.

But Harpo was the best. Marceau was Harpo's spiritual descendant.

Harpo was so good that people actually believed he couldn't speak, which wasn't true, of course. In some Marx Brothers movies, Harpo's brothers mentioned the fact that he didn't speak — but not that he couldn't. They were careful to imply that it was a choice, not a condition.

On the other hand, there were times in some of those movies when Harpo tried to communicate something urgent to someone else, but he could only do so in his silent charades–like way. It isn't hard to see how that would convince people that he was mute.

Harpo's silent shtick was inspired early in his career when a reviewer of the brothers' stage performance wrote glowingly of his "beautiful pantomime""which was ruined whenever he spoke." So he almost never spoke.

His nickname was simply a reference to the fact that he played the harp.

That was something he did in just about every Marx Brothers movie.

Harpo was a self–taught harp player, and the fact was that he tuned and played his harp incorrectly. Nevertheless, he played beautifully. I have heard that he spent a small fortune hiring music teachers to show him how to do it correctly, but they were more interested in watching him play his way than teaching him how to play correctly.

If he wasn't recognizable enough in his frilly wig that looked blond in black–and–white film (turned out it was really red), he was always dressed the same — in a trench coat with oversized pockets and a top hat.

I have often wondered if Harpo's usual dress inspired Blake Edwards or Peter Sellers to use it for Inspector Clouseau. Perhaps it was Harpo who was inspired — by the inspectors of his day.

Doesn't really matter, I guess. As a young journalist — and before, for that matter — I always regarded anything that wasn't original to be plagiarism. As I have gotten older, though, I have learned that isn't a hard and fast rule. It is plagiarism if one lifts, word for word, what someone else has written and claims it as his/her own.

But being inspired to use part of what someone else has utilized, like clothing, and adapting it to a new creation is another matter.

Besides, no one could duplicate Harpo.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Hard Day's Write

On this day in 1968, the Beatles released the only double album they would release while they were still together as a band.

Numerous multi–record collections were released after the group broke up, but the album that was released 45 years ago today — informally known as the White Album for its plain white cover — was the only exception to the single–record releases that characterized the Beatles' work.

Double albums were rare in the 1960s so that isn't really surprising. But it was the Beatles' first studio release in 18 months, and expectations were very high, being the Beatles' first album after the groundbreaking "Sgt. Pepper" album (well, technically, "Magical Mystery Tour" came out in November 1967, but it was not so much a Beatles album as a soundtrack for a British TV movie).

I suppose Apple wanted to make a big splash, and a double album was seen as a way to do that. Double albums were events in those days.

That seemed to promote misinterpretation of the significance of many of the songs. It is a bit disappointing for a Beatles fan like myself to realize that what the White Album largely is known for today, at least in the history books, is being the inspiration for Helter Skelter, the race war that the twisted Charles Manson and his easily manipulated followers envisioned.

The White Album was more than that. Rolling Stone named it the 10th greatest album of all time.

I'm sure any Beatles fan will tell you the music is what the White Album is about, even 45 years after its release. I can put that CD on today and still find songs that sound new and fresh and energetic.

And, while most of the songs were credited to the Lennon–McCartney team, there were a few songs by George Harrison and even one by Ringo Starr.

"Helter Skelter" was a song written by Paul McCartney and has been recognized as an early influence on the heavy metal musical genre. But the Manson family interpreted it as a description of an apocalyptic war — from which Manson would emerge to lead the survivors.

Manson, however, grew tired of waiting for "Helter Skelter" — as he had taken to calling this war — to happen on its own and decided he had to help it along. And thus the deadly sequence of events was put in motion, leading to a weekend of gruesome murders that were committed by Manson's followers in the summer of 1969.

That, at least, is what history remembers about the White Album. But there was so much more. Some of my favorite Beatles songs — like "Yer Blues" ...

That was written by John Lennon — but, like all the compositions by Lennon and McCartney during their Beatles days, it was credited to the Lennon–McCartney songwriting team. It is often noted, however, that the Lennon–McCartney designation is deceptive because very few of those songs were equal parts Lennon and McCartney. One or the other usually contributed most if not all of the work — and that may never have been as true as it was on the White Album.

There were 30 songs on the White Album — including one ("Revolution 9") that wasn't a song at all, just an eight–minute–plus collection of unrelated sounds — and 25 were credited to Lennon–McCartney, but most of them really were solo efforts.

And Harrison was emerging as a songwriter in his own right, contributing in new ways all the time.

I like all four of Harrison's compositions that appeared on the White Album, but probably my favorite is "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," which was featured in Harrison's "Concert for Bangladesh" a few years later.

On the White Album, Eric Clapton of the recently disbanded Cream made an uncredited appearance, playing lead guitar on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

In an online poll last year, readers of Guitar World named it Harrison's best as a Beatle. While you will find Harrison devotees who prefer one of his songs or another over that one, most Harrison fans probably could be persuaded to go along with that choice.

One song — "Don't Pass Me By" — was credited to Richard Sharkey, aka Ringo Starr (who also sang it on the album). It was his first solo composition.

During his Beatles days, Starr sang lead vocals on songs that were written by others (i.e., "Yellow Submarine," a McCartney composition, and "Act Naturally," which was written by Buck Owens) — and he sang his own compositions on his solo albums.

But "Don't Pass Me By" was Starr's first solo songwriting effort on an album.

Songwriting never seemed to be what motivated Starr. Lennon and McCartney, of course, were prodigious songwriters, and Harrison evolved from a somewhat hesitant songwriter to one who bubbled so with creativity that, after the Beatles broke up, he had to release a triple album to provide an outlet for the backlog of material that never found its way onto a Beatles album.

But Starr always seemed content merely to play the drums.

Some critics thought the White Album lacked a theme, that it was a collection of unrelated songs. That probably was true — although you have to understand that, in 1968, theme albums were kind of rare. As innovative as the Beatles were, they weren't ahead of the curve on everything. Some of their albums did explore themes, but most did not. That kind of thing was more prominent after the Beatles broke up.

The White Album influenced me in ways that other albums did not. It was recorded at a turbulent point in the story of the Beatles — all four were starting to move in their own directions — as well as a turbulent time in the histories of America and the world. No wonder there was a sense of melancholy isolation in many of the songs.

It was just that simple. They were each moving on. It became official less than two years later when McCartney left the band and the breakup was formalized.

The White Album prepared the Beatles' fans for the next phase. I suppose it fulfills a similar function today, preparing the listener for the next phase of his/her life.

A Once-a-Year Rendezvous

Doris (Ellen Burstyn): You know, I can really talk to you. It's just amazing. I find myself saying things to you that I didn't even know I thought. I noticed that yesterday right after we met in the restaurant.

George (Alan Alda): We had instant rapport. Did you notice that, too?

Doris: No. But I know we really hit it off.

Ever since I first saw "Same Time Next Year" at the theater, I have marveled at it.

Part of that is due to the quality of the stars, Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn. They pulled off what I think must be one of the greatest challenges for an actor — to portray a character through different stages of his/her life over an extended period of time. In this case, the story followed the lives of two people who lived apart nearly all the time — except for one weekend a month, which they spent in each other's arms.

"Did you know," Alda's character asked near the end of the movie, "we've made love 113 times?" He said he figured that out on his calculator and observed that there probably wasn't anything about Burstyn he didn't know. "I think it's wonderful when two people know each other so well."

It is a very personal movie.

It is also a testimonial, I think, to how talented Alda and Burstyn are that, through their characters' descriptions of their spouses and children, the audience knew all about their lives, so much so that, as Burstyn's character said when told that Alda's character's unseen spouse had died, "I never even met Helen, and I feel as if I just lost my best friend."

The characters met by chance in the early 1950s when they were both in their 20s, and their story was told in vignettes separated by about five or six years until the late 1970s. The illusion of the passage of time was aided by superb makeup but also (as it was with Dustin Hoffman in "Little Big Man" and Cicely Tyson in the made–for–TV flick, "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman") by the actors' skill. Subtle changes that betray the influence of the aging process were expertly used to complete the effect.

Each vignette was connected by a kind of movie collage of images from the intervening years. I'm a history buff so that is the kind of thing that appeals to me. It helped to put things into historical context — although, being the nitpicker I am, I couldn't help noticing an inconsistency.

In the vignette for 1966, Alda was a right–winger (a reaction, as it turned out, to the death of his son in Vietnam) while Burstyn was a left–wing flower child who had gone back to school to find herself. They argued when Alda acknowledged that he had supported Barry Goldwater for president.

Goldwater did run for president. That wasn't the problem. The problem was twofold — Goldwater ran for president in 1964, and the premise of the story was that Alda and Burstyn got together once a year. With the vignette set in 1966, what happened in 1965? Did Burstyn not notice the change in Alda? Did Alda not notice the change in Burstyn? That was never mentioned.

For that matter, if the 1964 rendezvous was before the election, wouldn't the characters have argued about it then, not two years later? Lyndon Johnson won the 1964 election in a landslide, but, by 1966, his popularity tanked with approval ratings in the 40s by August. I would think that, instead of being as morose as he was initially, Alda's character of 1966 would have had a "told you so" attitude.

But it wasn't like that at all. Alda's character at that point in the story was a man overwhelmed by a rapidly changing world, which is certainly something to which everyone can relate on some level. When he said he was a "very old–fashioned" kind of guy, I think anyone could sympathize with that feeling on some level, too, regardless of personal politics.

I always thought the best scene in the movie came about halfway through when Alda's character was struggling with impotence ("I'm seeing someone out here who's an expert") and Burstyn's character was very pregnant.

George: We'd been to a party and we had a few drinks. So we went to bed and we started making love. And nothing happened. I mean for me. I mean, I ... I couldn't ... well, you get the picture.

George: I mean it was no big deal. I mean we laughed about it. And then about a half hour later, just as I was going to sleep, Helen turned to me and said, 'It's funny. When I married a CPA, I always thought that it would be his eyes that would go first.' "

It was such an honest scene, with Alda helping Burstyn deliver the baby, who was born prematurely.

Reminded of that near the end of the movie, Burstyn said she considered it "our finest hour."

It was certainly one of them. But it was too hard to narrow down a finest minute in this movie, let alone a finest hour.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Truly Realistic Resort

"Have we got a vacation for you!"

At first glance, Michael Crichton's Westworld appeared to be the perfect adult resort. (Well, the $1,000/day price tag was a bit steep.)

Staffed by realistic robots, Westworld was divided into three distinct worlds — West World, where guests could re–live the days of the Old West; Roman World and Medieval World. Each was realistic, but everything — gunfights and duels included — was controlled. Nothing could possibly go wrong, guests were assured.

Everything was designed for the guests' pleasure.

In "Westworld," which made its debut on this day in 1973, James Brolin played a prior patron. Richard Benjamin was a first–timer who had been persuaded by Brolin to come to Westworld to distract him from his domestic problems.

The three worlds were occupied by robots that were designed to accommodate any guest's desire, be it a fight or a sexual rendezvous. In almost every respect, the robots were indistinguishable from the guests. There was one little physical flaw, but you had to know what it was. Otherwise, the difference was imperceptible to the naked eye.

The robots, though, were cold–blooded whereas the guests were warm–blooded. The weapons that were given to guests had sensors that prevented them from being used against living things. Robots, like the Gunslinger (Yul Brynner), were programmed to be outdrawn by guests.

But problems began to emerge in Medieval World and Roman World. Robots began breaking down. A knight killed a guest in a swordfight; an android refused a guest's sexual advances.

In the control room, the technicians scoffed at the notion that some sort of virus was spreading from one world to the other. But that was exactly what was happening.

In West World, Brolin and Benjamin were passed out drunk in a bordello, where they woke up hungover and tried to make their way back to their room. They were confronted by the Gunslinger. Unaware of the situation, Brolin challenged the Gunslinger to a gunfight — and suffered a mortal gun wound.

Benjamin began to understand what was happening, and the rest of the movie was about his attempt to escape.

The Gunslinger proved to be remarkably resilient — until Benjamin's character threw acid on it. That was the result of one of the most inspired special–effects scenes I have ever witnessed. Brynner's face was coated with a special makeup that contained ground Alka–Seltzer. When Benjamin threw a cup of water on Brynner's face, the fizzling effect was created.

Another thing.

Have you ever looked at Brynner in "Westworld" and thought you had seen him before but in a different movie?

You weren't imagining it. Brynner's costume as the Gunslinger was nearly the same as the one he wore as Chris Adams in "The Magnificent Seven."

Maybe everything old is new again.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Powerful and Unsettling Vision

Dr. Landowska (George Petrie): There is a rumor that they are evacuating Moscow. There are people even leaving Kansas City because of the missile base. Now I ask you: To where does one go from Kansas City? The Yukon? Tahiti? We are not talking about Hiroshima anymore. Hiroshima was peanuts.

Dr. Oakes (Jason Robards): What's going on? Do you have any idea what's going on in this world?

Dr. Landowska: Yeah. Stupidity. It has a habit of getting its way.

It's been 30 years since "The Day After."

And when ABC concluded the initial showing of the two–hour–plus made–for–TV movie on this night in 1983, my guess is that the 100 million or so viewers probably felt more than a bit uneasy.

The imagery was powerful — very powerful, in fact, given the context of the times.

Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union had never been higher in my memory — less than three months earlier, the world teetered on the brink of disaster when the Russians shot down a commercial Korean airliner after it drifted into Soviet airspace — and what TV viewers saw on their screens that evening seemed entirely plausible.

In fact, articles prior to the broadcast warned that, if anything, the depictions of nuclear explosions and their effects were milder than they almost certainly would be in reality. But, sanitized though they might be, they were still very unsettling, and I recall that, after the movie ended, Ted Koppel told viewers reassuringly to look out their windows. "It's all still there," he said.

Then Koppel moderated a debate featuring, among others, scientist Carl Sagan, who likened the escalation of global nuclear tensions to a room filled with gasoline and two bitter enemies on either side, one with 7,000 matches and the other with 9,000 matches.

It wasn't an uplifting evening.

The movie was so unsettling because it was so real. It followed the normal, everyday activities of people in Kansas and Missouri — college students preparing for a new semester, a farm family making arrangements for a wedding, that sort of thing.

In the background were TV and radio news reports detailing escalating tensions half a world away.

Some people took the reports seriously. Most were indifferent to events on the other side of the globe, oblivious to pacts between nations — as, I fear, most people would be today. But some people took the reports seriously enough to begin making preparations for when the missiles began to go off.

It's true that things are more complicated today than they were 30 years ago. In 1983, the perceived threat really only came from one source, the Soviet Union. Well, OK, I guess you could include China, but the attention was on Russia and its satellites.

Today, it seems just as likely — if not more likely — that a nuclear strike would originate from a terrorist group or a third–world country, not a superpower. They don't work together or follow the same sets of orders.

That would make for a much more complex story if "The Day After" was remade in the 21st century.

As I say, the story was told primarily through these reports — perhaps inspired by Orson Welles and his radio broadcast of "War of the Worlds" 45 years earlier — and, given the times, it was reasonable to believe that the catalyst for a nuclear exchange would come in Germany. One thing led to another, and that was easy to believe, that events could escalate to the point where they were rapidly spinning out of man's control.

The Soviets tried to intimidate the United States into backing down in Berlin, and, when that didn't succeed, the Russians sent armored divisions to the border between East and West Germany.

From that point, one thing built upon another. In America, people went about their daily lives, still not heeding the warning signs.

Until the missiles started going off.

I thought then — and I still think — that most Americans would be in denial up to the last minute. I thought that point in the movie was prophetic. (I doubt that I will ever be able to prove it, though.)

Jason Robards was magnificent, as always, as a doctor/adjunct medical professor. Perhaps his moist poignant moment, the one that lingered in memory long after the movie was over, was of Robards weeping among the ashes of what once was his home.

Jobeth Williams played a nurse in a role that really wasn't as demanding of her as I expected, coming as it did after her performances in "Poltergeist" and "The Big Chill." They were probably the most recognizable stars in the movie. Others in the cast enjoyed varying degrees of popularity in the years to come.

It was a hard–hitting movie, a rare made–for–TV flick in that it took a cinematic stand and never gave viewers wiggle room. If this happens, the movie warned, all will be guilty and all will pay. There will be no innocent bystanders.

The scenes from the initial strike were horrific enough, but the scenes of the aftermath were downright terrifying — a nuclear wasteland where anything that wasn't already dead was dying. It made me wish that, if it did happen, I would go quickly. In fact, I remember deciding, as I watched the movie, that if I ever faced a situation where I knew a nuclear strike was coming, I would not seek shelter. I would go outside and wait for it.

Even though it was toned down, "The Day After" was a powerful and unsettling vision.

The story was rich with ironic opportunities that could so easily have been exploited — such as the farmer's wife who ignored the evidence of the unfolding disaster and continued to focus on preparations for the scheduled wedding of her daughter until the very last minute. But it seemed to me that, though the scenes of the nuclear attack were horrific, they were understated.

Nevertheless, the subject matter was so disturbing that many of the TV stations that aired the movie provided teams of counselors to help anxious viewers when it was over.

In spite of the self–serving rhetoric that is frequently heard these days, it's hard to imagine any modern–day network being that socially responsible.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Thirty Years of 'A Christmas Story'

"You'll shoot your eye out!"

Mrs. Parker (Melinda Dillon)

I guess most people have some kind of Christmas movie tradition, something they absolutely must see during the holidays.

For some folks, the holiday isn't complete until they have seen "It's a Wonderful Life" or "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" (my personal favorite). My mother's favorite Christmas movie was "We're No Angels," a somewhat obscure comedy from the 1950s that featured Humphrey Bogart and Peter Ustinov as inmates planning a Christmas escape from Devil's Island.

There are others, of course. More recently, I have known people who absolutely must see Will Farrell in "Elf" or the holiday season is incomplete, and the numerous TV networks we have today churn out new holiday–themed movies every year — so many that at least one cable network has taken to showing Christmas movies 24/7.

And Thanksgiving is still a week and a half away.

Several of my acquaintances would tell you "A Christmas Story," which was released 30 years ago today, is their favorite holiday movie, and it is hard to argue with that.

So many lines from that movie have become iconic. Certainly, Melinda Dillon's admonition to her son (Peter Billingsley) — "You'll shoot your eye out!" — has achieved a kind of cult status by itself, although I have one friend who looks forward to the scene in which Darren McGavin ("The Old Man") saw the word "FRAGILE" on the crate containing his "major award" and said, "Fraa–jeel–aay, huh? Must be Italian!"

Everyone seems to have a certain line like that from "A Christmas Story." I don't know if my mother ever saw it. We never spoke about it, but I am sure that, if she did see it, she thoroughly enjoyed it.

Knowing her as I did, I think she might have enjoyed certain dialogue exchanges even more than others. Our tastes were similar enough that I think we would have found most of the same things amusing.
Ralphie (Peter Billingsley): Oooh fuuudge!

Ralphie as Adult (Jean Shepherd): Only I didn't say 'fudge.' I said THE word, the big one, the Queen Mother Of Dirty Words, the F–dash–dash–dash word!

Mr. Parker (Darren McGavin): What did you say?

Ralphie: Uh, um...

Mr. Parker: That's ... what I thought you said. Get in the car. Go on!

Ralphie as Adult: It was all over. I was dead. What would it be? The guillotine? Hanging? The chair? The rack? The Chinese water torture? The human sacrifice? Hmmph. Mere child's play compared to what surely awaited me.

I suppose my very favorite parts of the movie came when the Old Man was unpacking and displaying his "major award," running out to the sidewalk to see how it looked through the window and telling (mostly disinterested) passersby that it was a major award — and when Dillon was coaxing Ralphie's brother to eat.

Or when the family went out to eat at a Chinese restaurant, and the Chinese waiters serenaded them with Christmas carols ("Deck the harrs with boughs of horry, fa ra ra ra ra, ra ra ra ra ...").

There are always parts I forget — until I see the movie again. And I haven't forgotten much because, I have to admit, "A Christmas Story" has become a holiday tradition for me. As long as I have cable, that won't be a problem. For the last few years at least, it has been shown back–to–back for 24 hours stretching from Christmas Eve into Christmas Day. (Last year, I had my TV on all day on Christmas, and this movie was on constantly.)

That is its special quality, I guess. Even though it was released about a month before Christmas, my memory is that it wasn't particularly successful when it was at the theaters. Maybe part of the problem was its director — Bob Clark — who was probably best known to the general public for his bawdy "Porky's" flicks.

My guess is that hindered the film at the theaters, but, whether from word of mouth or the rise of video tape/cable TV in the 1980s (or perhaps both), it gained a devoted following as a modern Christmas classic.

And now it is a Christmas tradition.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Playin' Those 'Mind Games'

"We all been playin' those mind games forever
Some kinda druid dude liftin' the veil
Doin' the mind guerrilla
Some call it magic, the search for the grail."

John Lennon

John Lennon has always been my favorite Beatle, and his death was (for me, at least, and I am sure for many others around the world) the kind of event of which one says, "I remember where I was and what I was doing when ..."

(That's the kind of statement, incidentally, that I have heard a lot in recent days, being as we are nearly upon the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. Perhaps that is why it springs so easily to mind in the context of a story about Lennon.)

But on this day in 1973, Lennon was neither a Beatle (anymore) nor the murdered ex–Beatle he became in 1980. He was a solo artist, and he released his single "Mind Games," the title track from the album he released a couple of weeks earlier, in the United Kingdom 40 years ago on this day.

The rest of the album wasn't bad, but the title track was really the only truly memorable song from it.

My fellow Lennon admirers will mention a whole range of songs when asked to name their favorite Lennon composition. Some are familiar to mainstream listeners, like "Imagine" or songs he wrote when he was with the Beatles, but some are rather obscure. If you mention them to Lennon fans, they will smile and nod their heads knowingly, but, more often than not, if you mention them to mainstreamers, their faces will show no recognition.

In many ways, "Mind Games" is like that. I think it is a classic Lennon melody with classic Lennon lyrics, easily comparable to any of the best songs he recorded with the Beatles or as a solo artist after the Beatles broke up.

Lennon's admirers will know of it; casual listeners probably will not.

And that probably plays games with a few minds today, just as it did with some critics 40 years ago.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

An Album for All Seasons

My memory of "90125," the Yes album that was released 30 years ago today, is bound to be different from most people's.

Sometime after it was released, I was called in to the offices of the Arkansas Gazette to interview for a job opening on the sports copy desk. After the interview, I was so sure I would get the job (and I did) that I bought "90125" on my way home that night. I listened to it all evening after I got home. Even today, when I listen to it, my mind flashes back to that evening.

I continued to listen to it nearly every day after I got the job and as I prepared to move to an apartment in Little Rock. It became the soundtrack for that period in my life. To this day, I cannot listen to it without thinking of those days.

The job at the Gazette required me to work nights — until after midnight. I remember listening to "90125" most nights when I got home. I tried to keep the sound down, but my neighbors must have heard it at times. They were good sports, though. No one ever complained.

The big hit from the album was "Owner of a Lonely Heart," which is still probably the most recognizable track from the album.

(By the way, I always thought the title of the album had some kind of significance — but I just didn't know what it was. Turns out there was a good reason why I didn't know. There was no significance, none at all. It was lifted from its Atco Records catalog number: 7–90125–1.)

"Owner of a Lonely Heart" was already a hit when the album was released on this date in 1983; it is probably still the most recognized track. Three other songs from the album — "It Can Happen," "Leave It" and "Hold On" — were released as singles in the months that followed, but none ever duplicated the success of "Owner of a Lonely Heart." Not even close.

"Leave It" started getting a lot of airplay a few months after the album was released. I had Mondays and Tuesdays off in those days, and I often drove to Hot Springs to watch the horses run at Oaklawn Park that spring.

Even though I worked in the sports department and had the advantage (if that is what you want to call it) of the insights of my co–workers (including the fellow who covered the horses for us), I never did very well at the track. At a certain point on those occasions, "Leave It" started playing in my head. It was good advice, and I usually had the good sense to follow it.

And so it is that I have a mental link between "Leave It" and my afternoons at the track.

"It Can Happen" was making the rounds of the radio stations that summer. I always liked it. I'm not sure why.

Maybe it was the upbeat message of the song. Maybe it was the sitar — it was simultaneously reminiscent of my early childhood, when I heard the sitar in Beatles songs, and of my teen years, when my father listened to a lot of Ravi Shankar's music. Both were certainly influences on my musical tastes.

If "It Can Happen" and "Leave It" had been released in reverse order, I might not have had the good sense to leave the race track when I did because "It Can Happen" would have been sending me an entirely different kind of message as it played endlessly in my head.

"Hold On" was released two years to the day after the album was released. I'm not sure what kind of message I would have taken from it if it had been a hit when I frequented the race track.

As the title suggests, it offers encouragement to anyone facing a formidable challenge. It isn't an original title. There were already lots of songs with that title when this one was recorded, and there have been many more since.

So, clearly, the title wasn't unique. Was the message unique? Not really. Trials and tribulations have always been part of life and always will be. That's what makes a song like "Hold On" so universal. We've all been there (or will be), and most of us can empathize with others when they're up against hard times.

At least in my case — and I'm sure it must be this way for others — "90125" was an album for all seasons. It motivated, advised, encouraged and commiserated.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Paying Attention to the Voices

The Dauphin (Jose Ferrer): A ruler must compromise and bargain with the lowest kind of people, even the enemy. Men are governed by corruption, they like it.

Joan of Arc (Ingrid Bergman): Men hate corruption, and God hates it!

The Dauphin: I don't know about God, but men take to it very naturally.

I think most people would agree that Ingrid Bergman was an exceptionally beautiful woman.

But I also suspect that, if you conducted a poll on the word or concept that defined that beauty — or which of her movie roles epitomized it — you would receive a wide range of responses.

Of the latter, I would say there might be considerable support for her role as Ilse Lund in "Casablanca." That wouldn't be surprising. It's probably her most famous role, even though Bergman didn't win an Oscar for her performance.

Bergman did win Oscars for her performances in "Gaslight," "Anastasia," and "Murder on the Orient Express." Only Katharine Hepburn's acting was honored more often with Oscars.

All of those roles were reflections of what I think was truly special about Bergman's beauty, but I've always believed that the greatest example was her role in a film that made its debut on this day in 1948 — "Joan of Arc."

Bergman's beautiful exterior hid an interior of reinforced steel. She was, in other words, tough.

And she was smart, too.

The really intriguing part of Bergman's beauty was her tendency to appear at once both vulnerable and hesitant to allow that vulnerability to be exposed for very long. But that was also a trap.

"Bergman's Joan is a strong and spiritual figure," writes Paul Brenner of

Historically, it was a stretch for Bergman to play Joan of Arc. The real Joan was a teenager; at 33, Bergman was more than twice as old as the girl she portrayed.

But Bergman pulled it off, in large part, I have always suspected, because of the ageless quality of her beauty. She was nearly 60 when she won her last Oscar, but she looked younger somehow, even though that last Oscar was for playing an aging Swedish missionary.

She did so well in her portrayal of Joan, in fact, that she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. She didn't win — Jane Wyman did — but it was Bergman's fourth Best Actress nomination in six years.

In "Joan of Arc," she played a 15th–century farm girl who was persuaded by the voices in her head to lead the revival of a France that had been demoralized in the One Hundred Years War.

Bergman was striking, even when wearing the plain clothes in which audiences of "Joan of Arc" first saw her, but she was really something else when clad in her warrior's garb. As co–star Jose Ferrer observed at one point, "she's a very pretty girl in armor and exciting to look at."

Indeed she was.

But Bergman was so much more, as she was in all her other movie roles. Bergman's Joan really was "strong and spiritual," a powerful ally in Ferrer's Dauphin's rise to the French throne.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Murder of Stringbean

In the autumn of 1973, my family was in Nashville. My father was on a four–month sabbatical there.

There was at least one weekend that fall when Dad was out of town for one reason or another. He was probably attending a seminar or something — I don't really remember. What I do remember is that Mom and my brother and I went to Chattanooga that weekend. It was about a two–hour drive from Nashville, I guess. Mom wanted to see the famous Chattanooga Choo–Choo, which was popularized by Glenn Miller. (Yes, there is one.)

We drove to Chattanooga that Friday and returned to Nashville on Sunday. It was only after we got back that we learned what had happened in our absence.

David Akeman, known as "Stringbean," and his wife, Estelle, had been murdered at their rural Tennessee home. Stringbean had performed at the Grand Ole Opry that Saturday night, and they got home late, interrupting a burglary. According to the story that emerged in the investigation and trial, the two were shot and killed shortly after their arrival.

Akeman was an amiable sort, quite popular among Grand Ole Opry patrons and viewers of the cornpone country TV variety show Hee Haw. Even though we lived in Nashville for a few months, we never managed to go to the Grand Ole Opry so my memories of Stringbean are from Hee Haw. Tall and wiry, Akeman made the most of his appearance. As part of his act, he wore an extra–long shirt and a pair of short blue jeans that was belted around his knees, giving the impression of a tall man with short legs.

Stringbean was a young man during the Depression, and, like many of the folks who came of age at that time, he didn't trust banks. This was fairly well known in Nashville. It was also fairly well known — or, at least, it was often said — that Stringbean kept a fortune in the little country cabin in which he and Estelle lived.

Fact was, Stringbean did keep a sizable amount of money in his home, but it wasn't the kind of fortune that drew two men to that cabin on a cold November night. They expected to find much more, but, by entertainment industry standards, even the considerably lower ones of 1973, Stringbean was hardly a wealthy man.

The thieves never found the money that Stringbean kept hidden on his property.

In fact, all they took that night, besides the lives of Stringbean and Estelle, were a chainsaw and some firearms. That proved to be their undoing. Grandpa Jones, Stringbean's friend and hunting/fishing companion as well as Opry partner, testified at the trial and identified a weapon that was in the killers' possession as one he had given to Stringbean as a gift.

Grandpa Jones found the bodies on Sunday morning, Nov. 11, 1973.

My memory of that time is that all of Nashville mourned Stringbean's murder. When I heard what had happened, it was only a few hours after the news had broken, but already there were indications all over the city of the depth of grief it was experiencing. It wasn't a global thing, like when Elvis Presley died a few years later, but it was a big story locally.

My family remained in Nashville for about a month before we returned to Arkansas in December 1973, and developments in the investigation — even when there were no developments — led the newscasts and were on the front pages of the newspaper every day.

Eventually, two cousins were convicted in the case. As I recall, only one was convicted of actually pulling the trigger, but both were held responsible under the felony murder rule, which holds that if a person commits a felony that results in the death of another, that person is guilty of murder as well.

More than 20 years later, Stringbean's cash stash was found. It had been hidden behind a chimney brick and had deteriorated to the point that it was not usable.

The man who pulled the trigger is still in prison. His cousin died in prison — of natural causes — 10 years ago.

'Carlito's Way' Was Routine and Recycled

After I saw "Carlito's Way" — the movie that was released 20 years ago today — I concluded that the movie's star, Al Pacino, simply added a Spanish accent to the same character he had played in the "Godfather" movies, especially "Godfather III."

Pacino's character, a Puerto Rican drug–dealing gangster, was doing time (decades of it) in prison but was freed after only a few years on a technicality, thanks to his unscrupulous attorney (Sean Penn, who, I thought, bore a striking resemblance to Art Garfunkel in "Carnal Knowledge"). Upon his release, he decided to get out of his line of work as soon as he had accumulated enough money as the manager of a club owned by his lawyer to retire to the Caribbean.

But, like Michael Corleone, he couldn't escape his past.

In the interim, he rekindled his relationship with Gail, a stripper played by Penelope Ann Miller, and agreed to help his attorney, who had been coerced into helping a convicted mob boss (from whom the lawyer had stolen $1 million) escape from prison. Cocaine seemed to course through every relationship and every act in the story, which was to be expected, I guess, especially in the environment of the '70s, but the intriguing part was that Carlito actually did manage to keep his nose clean — until his lawyer talked him into helping with the prison break (and the murder the lawyer planned to commit).

After being brought in for interrogation, Carlito heard a tape of his lawyer agreeing to sell him out. From that point, it was a race to see if Carlito and Gail could escape.

I felt it was a B–level story, average if not mediocre, with a mostly A–level cast. The personnel was too good for the material but never quite rose above it. That wasn't for lack of trying, and I will concede that Brian de Palma's direction helped, but I had seen enough of his earlier movies to recognize some of his signature filmmaking tricks.

De Palma had been making movies for 25 years when he made "Carlito's Way," and he had grown comfortable with certain camera angles and other techniques he relied on to manipulate the emotions of the viewers.

It's never been a secret that, as a young director, de Palma was influenced by the movies of Alfred Hitchcock. In recent years, he has said he outgrew that as a director, but I'm not convinced. When he began saying that he was past his Hitchcock phase, it was after "Carlito's Way" was in the theaters, and I definitely saw some Hitchcock–inspired moments in that one. Someone who had seen several of his earlier movies could recognize his touch; those who had not seen many of his movies were probably impressed and apt to rate the movie highly.

Clearly, at least in "Carlito's Way," de Palma was also influenced by Bob Fosse — particularly Fosse's closing sequence in "All That Jazz" in which the lead character hallucinated as he died. Some folks probably thought it was a creative touch, not realizing it was recycled.

But I found it to be, in many ways, a routine re–telling of the gangster's tale — and of de Palma's movies in general.

What Might Have Been

"For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: 'It might have been!' "

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892)
Maud Muller (1856)

No one will ever know if Dorothy Stratten was as talented as some people said — or if she was just another pretty face.

Stratten was a Canadian–born beauty who fell under the spell of a smooth–talking con man, a narcissistic wannabe who peddled her to Playboy magazine. She succeeded there beyond his wildest dreams, becoming Playmate of the Year and getting movie deals. Most of the movies weren't even good enough to be considered B movies, but Stratten got good reviews and her circle of friends widened to include people like director Peter Bogdanovich, who cast her in one of his movies.

She slowly slipped from her boyfriend's grip, which was something he couldn't accept, and he eventually killed her.

Their story was the basis for a TV movie starring Jamie Lee Curtis and a big–screen movie that was released 30 years ago today starring Mariel Hemingway, "Star 80," named for the vanity license plate Stratten's boyfriend selected for her car.

Hemingway was suitably beautiful in the role of Stratten, but, frankly, she was little more than eye candy most of the time. And that may have been the most tragically revealing part of the cinematic account of Stratten's life story. She was completely gullible; most viewers must have felt that they were watching Hemingway convincingly duplicate Stratten's relationship, and that told me everything I really needed to know.

Ultimately I had to conclude that there just wasn't much there there. She might well have been a talented actress, but there were certain relationship issues that always seemed to get in the way.

So maybe Stratten was misunderstood, pigeonholed as an airhead starlet. Or maybe her character really didn't challenge Hemingway sufficiently.

Different matter entirely with Eric Roberts, who played the thoroughly reprehensible boyfriend, Paul Snider. He overwhelmed the story as surely as the man he portrayed must have overwhelmed Stratten — and might have deserved an Oscar nomination for his performance (although he might have deserved a spot on the American Film Institute's list of villains more).

If anyone affiliated with "Star 80" deserved to be nominated for an Oscar, it was director Bob Fosse, but I'm not even sure about that. He was nominated — as he should have been — for "All That Jazz" a few years earlier and for "Lenny" a few years before that, and he won the Oscar for directing "Cabaret." Those were the high points of his directorial career, not "Star 80," which seemed to lack a certain amount of direction.

It often seemed to me that, as grim as Stratten's story was, there was a point to be made, a moral to be learned, somewhere and whatever it was. Fosse just never managed to express it. Maybe Fosse himself didn't know. I sensed that kind of ambiguity in the movie.

For me, it was disappointing that his final film turned out that way.

Make no mistake, though. "Star 80" really packed an emotional punch. Roberts' character clearly used Hemingway's character to climb the social ladder of the Playboy world, and I have often wondered if Snider was more distraught over losing his sense of influence and prestige than he was over losing Stratten, who had fallen in love with Bogdanovich.

Stratten's mother wondered the same thing.
Paul Snider (Eric Roberts): I do love her.

Dorothy's mother (Carroll Baker): What did you say?

Snider: I said I love her.

Dorothy's mother: Funny — I could've sworn you said 'I love IT.'

Snider was the reason why whatever potential Stratten possessed will never be fully realized. That is tragic.

But it is more tragic that what should have been a re–telling of her story was mostly about the man who killed her and what drove him to take her life.

Seen from that perspective, Stratten was victimized twice — first by Snider, then by Fosse.

And we're still no closer to answering the question of what might have been than we were before.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

To Tell the Truth

"It is hard to believe that a man is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in his place."

H.L. Mencken

It's hard to tell the truth. Just ask any politician.

On this night 60 years ago, Lucille Ball's character in I Love Lucy found herself in the uncomfortable position of having to tell the absolute truth or else lose a bet with her husband (Desi Arnaz) and the Mertzes (William Frawley and Vivian Vance).

It was a great opportunity for Lucy to show everyone — once again — why she was the queen of comedy.

Ricky, Fred and Ethel were telling show business stories, and Lucy, who had none to tell, nevertheless felt compelled to invent stories about her own experience. When the others called her on it, she insisted that she had "never told a fib in my life." Ricky, Fred and Ethel cited examples of her deceptive statements, which she dismissed as "social" lies; she contended that those really didn't count.

And thus a bet was born. Lucy had to tell the truth for 24 hours. If she didn't, she lost the bet.

Ricky started out to make the bet alone but then Fred and Ethel wanted in on it — much to Lucy's dismay.

"My friends!" she said.

"Oh, it has't anything to do with friendship," Ethel replied. "It's just that there are so few sure ways of making a buck these days."

The minute the 24–hour clock began ticking, Ethel reminded Lucy that they were going to join some friends for bridge the next day.

"I can't spend the afternoon with three women and have to tell the truth," she protested — and then she almost blew it. "I'll call Caroline and tell her I'm sick!"

Anticipating a much quicker resolution of their bet than they had expected, Ricky, Fred and Ethel leaned forward to hear Lucy's end of the conversation. But she caught herself just in time.

The next day, Lucy managed to insult her companions by telling them what she really thought of things like the host's new furniture and the hat that the fourth bridge player was wearing. After Ethel explained about the bet, the other three decided to ask Lucy about personal things (age, weight, actual hair color), knowing that she was bound to tell the truth. Seemed a shame to waste such a golden opportunity.

And she surprised them by answering truthfully — "Thirty–three, 129 and mousey brown!"

Her disappointed companions sat down at the card table, and Lucy triumphantly observed, "It feels wonderful to tell the truth."

(In the interest of full disclosure, Lucy actually was 42 when she made this episode.)

Of course, Fred and Ricky were disappointed when they learned that the bridge game had failed to win the bet for them. And Fred and Ethel were insulted when Lucy said what she thought of some of their personality traits. But Ricky pointed out that they had forced Lucy to tell the truth because of the bet.

Ethel retorted that Lucy hadn't said anything about Ricky yet, and he said he wasn't afraid to hear his faults.

"I think you're the most handsome, the most wonderful, the cleverest and the most talented man in the whole world," she said. Ricky was pleased — until Lucy added, "You're hammy, you're stubborn and you're a coward."

Lucy explained that he was a coward because he was afraid to give her a chance to fulfill her show business ambitions.

To prove that wasn't true, Ricky told Lucy he was going to an audition for a TV show and invited her to join him. She accepted, and the Mertzes were incredulous.

"I know how they conduct these auditions," Ricky told them. Lucy would have to lie about her experience to get an audition, and they would win the bet.

If she didn't lie, she wouldn't get the audition.

But Lucy double–crossed them. She told the truth and was about to be dismissed when she wrangled a part in an audition for an Italian entertainer who didn't speak English. Lucy said she spoke Italian, which astonished everyone, but that, apparently, was a lie. The only times she said anything in Italian were when she was parroting him. Mostly, she just smiled and nodded whenever he said anything.

He positioned her in front of a board ringed with balloons, and suddenly Lucy realized he was a knife thrower.

She stood there for 10 throws before breaking down and confessing that she couldn't speak Italian.

"I'll pay the bet!" she told Ricky, who had a confession of his own. No knives were thrown. The balloons were popped by knife handles that came from the back.

Ricky told Lucy he would pay the bet, and Lucy dissolved into her trademark wailing cry.

By the way, an interesting side note here. When Lucy was answering the pre–audition questions about her experience, she claimed to have appeared "in 3D." The interviewer nodded and said, "Third dimension," and Lucy shook her head and said, "No, 3D."

The bewildered interviewer asked, "What is 3D if it isn't third dimension?"

"Our apartment," Lucy replied truthfully.

Until that time, the number on the Ricardos' door was 3B. For this episode, though — the one that dealt with honesty and deception — the number was changed to 3D.

Seems fitting, doesn't it?

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Killing Time

Agatha Christie's "The Clocks" was published 50 years ago today, and it was distinguished by several often unrelated themes.

I guess the title gives away the main theme. In the very first chapter, a stranger was found dead in a room filled with clocks, each with its own significance. All but one were set more than an hour ahead.

Clocks continued to play a rather important role in the story (although I thought it was rather clumsily woven into the resolution of the mystery), so much so that I recall wondering, as I read it for the first time, if Christie had been influenced by the classic movie "High Noon," in which clocks in every home and every place of business ratcheted up the tension.

That would go a long way toward explaining some things, like the presence of a rather obvious homage to Hitchcock's "Rear Window" late in the book — in the course of the investigation, a young girl was questioned. She had a broken leg, which kept her confined inside where she watched the neighbors from a window. Not knowing who they were, she gave them names based on her observations.

The detective of record was Hercule Poirot, and his work on this case was noteworthy because he never went to any of the crime scenes nor did he question any of the witnesses. It was entirely an intellectual exercise for Poirot, who was old and retired (although he appeared in three more Christie novels before his celebrated final case, "Curtain," was published more than a decade later) but eager to assume the role of armchair detective.

Poirot shared the story's spotlight with a British intelligence agent who did much of the actual legwork — including interviewing the girl with the broken leg — but he shared all his notes with Poirot.

There was another interesting angle to the story. Poirot actually discussed his opinions of other fictional detectives and their authors, about many of whom modern readers know little or nothing — other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Christie was careful, I noticed, not to mention her contemporaries.

There were two somewhat interlocking stories being told — the murder mystery and a spy story — and both originated in the same house although they had precious little to do with each other beyond that.

There were other times when Christie tried to merge a murder mystery with an espionage thriller, and the end result usually didn't completely succeed as she probably hoped it would. "The Clocks" did not prove to be an exception to that.

In general, though, "The Clocks" was successful as a murder mystery, and the reviews, while mixed, were pretty good. Not bad for a 73–year–old writer.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Vivien Leigh's 100th Birthday

Anyone who has ever seen Vivien Leigh in a movie — and that must mean just about everyone — would agree.

She was stunningly beautiful.

And, to these Southern ears, she sounded legitimately Southern in "Gone With the Wind" and "A Streetcar Named Desire," but, in fact, she was the daughter of an English military officer stationed in India at the time of her birth.

Leigh was born 100 years ago today, and she looked upon her beauty as more of a curse than a blessing. She felt it kept her from being taken seriously.

That may have been true with some filmmakers, but the American Film Institute certainly takes her seriously. AFI rated her 16th on its list of the 25 greatest actresses of all time.

And the Academy Awards took her seriously. She was named Best Actress twice — for her performances in "Gone With the Wind" and "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Of all the movies she made, those are almost certainly the two for which she is most remembered.

My guess is that was the kind of attention she craved — recognition for her ability to act, not for her beautiful features. She was a lot like Elizabeth Taylor, I guess. Taylor gained weight and did everything she could think of to make her portrayal of Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" as realistic as possible — and was rewarded with an Oscar.

Leigh, who was nearly 20 years older than Taylor, didn't go to such physical extremes, but, as I say, it was her acting ability that she wanted people to remember.

(Taylor, in fact, was an admirer of Leigh's. I have heard that Taylor, who regarded Leigh as a "tragic heroine," saw her role in "Virginia Woolf" as an opportunity "to really act.")

Largely known for her stage roles before being cast as Scarlett O'Hara, Leigh gained virtually instant fame when she emerged from a well–publicized quest that included many better–known performers. But she insisted that she was an actress, not a film star.

"I'm not a film star — I'm an actress. Being a film star — just a film star — is such a false life, lived for fake values and for publicity. Actresses go on for a long time, and there are always marvelous parts to play."

Even if you don't consider the two roles for which she was rewarded with Oscars, it would be hard to dismiss Leigh as merely a "film star."

Sure, she was beautiful, and that is about the only requirement these days for a woman to be a movie star, but Leigh had talent that she brought to every project, be it on stage or the big screen.

I suppose you can't separate Leigh's career from that of her second husband, Laurence Olivier. They often worked together during their 20–year marriage.

Leigh and Olivier met before Leigh was cast in "Gone With the Wind." They were co–stars in "Fire Over England," young lovers on screen — and off, as it turned out. Both were married to other people, but they would be married to each other three years later.

And Leigh's relationship with Olivier played its own role in the two most noteworthy parts she ever had.

It was during their affair that Leigh read "Gone With the Wind" and decided she would play Scarlett.

And it was during their marriage that Leigh played the role of Blanche DuBois, first in a London stage production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 1949, then as Marlon Brando's co–star in the big–screen version two years later.

"Streetcar" director Elia Kazan was unimpressed with Leigh initially, but she proved her "determination to excel" to him during the production of the film.

"She'd have crawled over broken glass if she thought it would help her performance," he said.

Following her marriage to Olivier, Leigh had a tendency to drop out of public sight for months, even years, and the stage was always her preference to the silver screen. What fans saw in public was a woman who seemed to be in control of herself and her career, but privately, Leigh battled emotional and health issues that eventually took their toll on both her marriage and her career.

She died in July 1967 of the tuberculosis with which she had struggled for years.

(By the way, Turner Classic Movies will be showing 11 of Leigh's movies today, including the two for which she won Oscars.)

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Coming to Terms Via 'Ordeal By Innocence?'

By this date in 1958, Agatha Christie had been publishing her mystery novels for nearly 40 years.

With roughly three–quarters of her books in print by that time, it is fair to say that "Ordeal by Innocence," which was published on this day in 1958 (when Christie was 68), was a product of her later period as a writer, and it was generally well received by critics. I've always felt it was one of the best of her later works.

It was kind of unusual, really, in the sense that it did not feature either of her most popular detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. And it really didn't use some unique plot device. In fact, it was rather conventional.

I guess the most noteworthy aspect of the story was its use of amnesia as a plot device. That is something that had been used before by others, but it was noteworthy because of something that happened in Christie's personal life.

More than 30 years earlier, Christie disappeared for about a week and a half and insisted she couldn't remember anything about the unaccounted–for time. Perhaps "Ordeal By Innocence" was her way of coming to terms with that mostly unexplained period in her life.

That is purely speculation, of course, but Christie did list "Ordeal By Innocence" as one of her personal favorites — and never said why.

The role that amnesia played in the story was secondary, I suppose. It was not the murderer but the detective who suffered from amnesia — and the detective wasn't really a detective, for that matter. He was a physician who lost his memory on the night of the murder. Had it not been for that, he could have been the alibi for the person who was convicted of the murder during the doctor's — shall we say? — absence. It was while he was recovering from his amnesia that the doctor learned what had happened and tried to set things straight.

The doctor was typical, I guess, of the non–detective detectives Christie used in books that didn't feature her actual detectives. Although he had no training in law enforcement, circumstances forced him to assume that role, and he discovered he had a certain aptitude for it.

Ultimately, the thing I always liked about "Ordeal By Innocence" was the fact that, in the end, the question of whether justice would be done was left up in the air. It was a reminder that justice is neither entirely blind nor entirely fair.